I was seventeen when a new millennium reset the world. I started it by drinking a bottle of cinnamon-flavored liquor at my own New Year’s Eve party and passing out in my room, sleeping right through the ball drop. In the morning, my mother woke me with the dregs of the bottle in a shot glass, the sickly sweet, spicy fumes like smelling salts under my nose. She told me to drink the shot or get grounded for being an asshole. I drank the shot and slept the entire first day of the year 2000.
In February, my boyfriend—the sweet art student I’d turned into a moody recluse—went to Europe with the Italian club. In Milan, he made out with a junior and then promptly broke up with me upon his return. I didn’t protest; the relationship had become miserable. I didn’t know why I couldn’t be kind to him anymore, why I gave blowjobs to the football quarterback, and the raven-haired hippie who worked at my father’s bar, and the guy in my history class who dared me one night when we were working on a group project. I was a senior. Maybe I hoped I could implode instead of grow up.
School dismissed for spring break in April. Faced with a week of me at home in our small two-bedroom apartment, my mother wrote out a list of activities to take my mind off my ex. I sat on the Formica kitchen counter as she recited it. Vetoed every movie suggestion. Scoffed at antiquing. Laughed bitterly at her offer to visit my ninety-year-old great aunt in Chautauqua Lake. Aunt Bernie was cool, I said, but not that cool.
“Well, Linda and I are getting tattoos next Saturday,” she said. “You can come and get one with us.” My mother laughed because she wasn’t remotely serious. At the doctor’s office, I still slid into a whimpering puddle whenever I had to get a shot. Though I’d long admired the faded bluebird on my mother’s right breast, I hated needles and blood with a phobic fervor.
I probably would’ve chickened out if I hadn’t announced to my friends my plans to get a tattoo. That’s how I make myself do things—I tell people, and the fear of being a poser trumps the fear of dropping acid, or hiking an Adirondack high peak, or writing a book. By then, everyone had forgotten about the day in fifth grade when I fainted during sex ed, or how that same squeamishness drove me to lose my virginity at fifteen. I just couldn’t stand the thought of my unbroken hymen, the inevitability of its breaking. I rushed towards that tiny spot of blood on my sheets the way my husband sometimes fears I’m rushing towards death, my fear of it so powerful that I hurtle through each day as though it’s an obstacle to getting my life out of the way.
The next weekend, my mother, her coworker Linda, and I drove to the tattoo parlor an hour north in Ithaca, New York. As we passed the manicured campus of Ithaca College, I made a point of saying nothing to my mother. Just weeks ago, I had given up my quest to attend private, privileged IC, and instead accepted my offer to SUNY New Paltz, the state college about six hours away by bus. I didn’t have a car, and the thought of being stranded downstate terrified me. I couldn’t admit this, not even to my mother, but I didn’t feel ready to leave, a fact that filled me with a biting shame. My recent behavior—the drinking and the sex and the stolen cigarettes from my mother’s pack—looked like declarations of independence, a champing at the bit to be on my own. My friends’ mothers routinely thanked god that their wild, disobedient children would soon be out of their houses, free to make and pay for their own mistakes. But right to the end, I kept hoping someone or something would intervene.
At the parlor, the bearded, heavily-inked tattooist studied me for a moment, and then asked to see my ID. He barely glanced at it before turning to my mother. “This your daughter?” he said. My mother nodded. I could tell she was holding her breath. I was a year younger than the state’s legal age, but the tattooist handed me back the ID and crossed his arms. “What does the young lady have in mind?” he said.
I still wasn’t sure what I was about to have permanently etched on my person. The tattooist handed me a stack of binders with his work—things on fire, skeletal things, things written in gothic or calligraphic script. I flipped through a few pages, but the choices overwhelmed me. Nothing felt right. Who was I? What could possibly represent me?
At seventeen, I was no longer many of the things I’d once been. I’d quit piano lessons sophomore year. Hadn’t done a school play since the seventh grade. No more church choir or Girl Scouts. I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and I wrote every day after school alone in my room, but the identity of a writer hadn’t yet amalgamated from these interests, which felt disparate then, a way to brush shoulders with the kids who wanted their dances and sporting events and fundraisers covered in the paper, while my private writing was still, well, private. I wasn’t ready to make a bodily statement out of the bad poetry and love letters I wrote in those unlined sketchbooks.
Who was I? I was adrift.
Only subconsciously could I have meant to depict my own disembodiment. I asked the tattooist to give me a pair of tiny blue wings, about an inch tall, on my right shoulder. An homage to my mother’s bird, I reasoned. No fairy, he asked, no dove or angel or unicorn? No, I said. Just the wings.
With a small disapproving shake of his head, he went to work. The whole thing took about twenty minutes, from the sharp, intense black outline of the wings to the almost pleasant, cat-kneading sensation of the blue shading inside. It didn’t hurt in any way I had expected–the buzz of the needle was almost relaxing, hypnotic. I watched myself in the smudgy mirror, looking for signs of transformation.
My mother got a loud orange and yellow sunset tattooed around her bird, and her co-worker Linda got a horseshoe on her thigh. We paid the tattooist, all of us giddy. But when the slow burn began to settle in on the drive home, I couldn’t quite tell if I was transformed or not—I needed someone else’s reaction. I decided to call my friend Giulia.
“You didn’t really do it, did you?” she said. An exasperated sigh crackled against the phone.
“I’m coming over,” I said. “Stay exactly where you are. Don’t even wiggle your pinky toe.” I used my left hand to rub vitamin ointment onto the tattoo while pressing the phone between my neck and shoulder. A scab was already forming. Blood bubbled out of my pores like set rubies.
“Aaron is here.” She paused. “So is Tom.”
At the sound of his name, I fumbled with the ointment, dropping the tube in the bathroom sink. “As in, Tom?” I said.
Five minutes, I told her. I made her swear to god.
Giulia used to say that if you asked five different people who I was, you’d get five different answers. I’ve always been instinctive about other people’s needs and motivations, and in high school, this allowed me almost instant intimacy with most people, so adept was I at filling a void. I didn’t mean to be deceptive, and though sometimes I’d catch glimpses of an unrecognizable self, I was mostly able to believe I really was who I was with each person. But stay close to me long enough, and you would see the radical changes from time to time, my interests and style, tastes and language all changelings. I wasn’t trying to dupe people. For reasons possibly pertaining to my parents’ divorce, and the subsequent struggle to cultivate separate but equal relationships with my mother and father, I believed people would only love me if I mirrored them exactly.
Giulia was a holdover friend from junior high, when we were both fifteen pounds heavier and on the Mathletes and debate team, respectively. We’d drifted apart in high school when I dropped the weight. But we still shared a closet intellectualism that sustained us through the social circles I cycled through, which is also what made Guilia suspicious of me. She was judgmental and openly disliked my pot-smoking friends, and my art class friends, and so our friendship was off and on, close and distant.
We were on again because Giulia had her first boyfriend, which gave us something new to talk about. She and Aaron met at the YMCA, where they both worked as lifeguards. Aaron lived in the neighboring county and went to “the hick school,” as we called it when he wasn’t around. I’d only met him a handful of times, and I wasn’t sure if it was because Giulia didn’t trust me with him, or because she was embarrassed by where he came from. Maybe both.
Tom was Aaron’s best friend. I hadn’t met him yet. But Giulia had told me about the time Tom and his cousin had to figure out which of them had gotten a girl at their school pregnant. Every morning, when Giulia and I met for study hall in the library, she would tell me the latest in the saga while we ate our strawberry Nutri-Grain bars. As a sexually active teenager, I was rapt. Tom was living out one of my greatest fears, or rather, the pregnant girl was, and I had this feeling of invincibility about it, like the odds of not getting pregnant were now in my favor. (The girl had an abortion, and Tom and his cousin were content to let the matter drop. At thirty, I have still never been pregnant.)
A longtime fixture at Giulia’s house, I let myself in through the garage and headed downstairs to the basement, which was more like an apartment, outfitted with a big screen TV, black leather couches, and full bar to which Giulia and I helped ourselves freely. I loved it there. I never said so, not to Giulia or my mother, but I wished I lived in that huge house, her successful parents helping me finish college applications and telling me not to worry about the money. In the fall, Giulia would be a freshman at Lafayette College, a private school in Pennsylvania, where she would major in engineering. Years later, Google would reveal the rest: graduate school, a career as an architect in New York City.
I took the stairs two at a time, already peeling off my cardigan for the big tattoo reveal. But a boy I didn’t know was sitting on one of the leather couches. He wore a pair of grease-stained khakis and a tight-fitting waffle weave shirt that hugged the outline of his upper body. His slumped posture betrayed annoyance and boredom. Then he looked up, and the bored expression disappeared from his face. I floated straight to him. “I know who you are,” I said.
“I know who you are,” he said. He fiddled with the brim of his faded yellow baseball cap.
“Jesus,” Giulia said.
We shook hands, and Tom said he heard I’d had a big day. I slipped my arms out of my t-shirt sleeves to show him the blue wings. Giulia snapped my bra strap and called me an exhibitionist, but that only made Tom’s eyes shine brighter. “Nice,” he said, tracing the raised, anointed flesh on my shoulder with a rough finger. “I want one, too. I can’t fucking wait.”
The four of us squeezed into Giulia’s black hatchback Jeep. With limited options for entertainment, we drove to a café that sold designer coffee drinks and Nag Champa incense, and occasionally hosted live music on a small wooden stage. On the way, Giulia and Aaron got into an argument and stayed in the parking lot to finish it while Tom and I went inside. We ordered sugary lattés and took a table in the back, next to a shelf of used board games. On stage, a thin, scruffy man played a fiddle while another pounded out an off-rhythm beat on tasseled bongos. Tom tapped his finger against the table. “I play drums,” he said. “Well, sometimes, I play.”
“And you wrestle and play football, too, right?” I said.
He smiled, one corner of his thin, shapely lips reaching higher than the other in a commentary all its own. “You know a lot about me,” he said.
“I know some things.”
Alone in the café, Tom and I made easy conversation. I was good at talking with boys. I had never considered myself pretty enough to lure the male gaze without effort, so since the ninth grade, I’d been using other strategies to get boys’ attention. Mostly what I did was act like them—I drank beer, drove fast, hollered at football games, appraised other women unflinchingly, and talked incessantly, mostly about sex. But my performance was usually rewarded with abiding friendship, not romantic interest. My guy friends called to consult on cheerleaders, parents, and college acceptances—I was a trusted confidante and a safe, sex-free haven. The boys I dated were different. I tended to attract the quiet, repressed ones who were simultaneously intimidated and enthralled by my theatrics. I was often credited with bringing my ex “out of his shell.” But after a year together, I began to get restless, unable to deal with his devotion to me. What started as flirting with other guys escalated to making out at parties, and then beyond. My ex knew what I was doing months before he went to Italy. He just needed to go far away enough to find the courage to leave me.
Tom was neither quiet nor repressed. He talked more than I did, a steady stream of disconnected observations that jumped subject like a round of Jeopardy! He was popular and a celebrated athlete, but he also liked to draw, and we both declared The Great Gatsby our favorite book. He was handsome in a rough, rural way, muscular, but lean, his skin sprinkled with freckles from too much time in the sun, his hair already beginning to thin in places. And he was attracted to me. I could feel it in the way our fingers bumped on the little peg game we absently played while drinking our coffee. How he stopped talking sometimes and just looked at me. How his attention never wavered even when Aaron and Giulia finally joined us after their fight. His attention—something I’d come to know as his best compliment—filled me with excitement and terror. I liked him, but he was out of my league.
At the end of the night, after I unlocked my mother’s truck in Giulia’s driveway, Tom and I hugged a charged, lingering hug. “I’ll call you,” he said. “I’ll get your number from Aaron.”
I nodded. I wanted to believe him. But instead, I told myself to remember how nice the night was, and then I silently wished him good-bye forever, just in case.
“The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe, said John Hamre, former United States Deputy Secretary of Defense.
According to Wikipedia, 154 women in Sheffield, England received incorrect Down Syndrome test results, leading to two abortions. A mysterious alarm rang two minutes after midnight at a nuclear plant in Onagawa, Japan. In Delaware, 150 slot machines malfunctioned. But no planes fell out of the sky, and no missiles were accidentally launched, and no Wall Street computers caused a market crash. My New Year’s Eve party wasn’t hampered by these fears. No one really thought the world was going to end. But I wonder if some of us had a mild hope that something would happen. Something that would unburden us of the world, or of ourselves.
No one was scanning the skies for signs of apocalypse, but my mother and some concerned friends contemplated taking me to the hospital to get my stomach pumped.
I remember the bottle of Aftershock sweating on the kitchen table, the pinkish red liquid translucent over the sugar crystals growing thick and tangled at the bottom. My plan was to finish the liquor and somehow chisel the crystals out.
But I drank it too fast, draining most of the bottle before my guests arrived. The next day, I couldn’t remember anything past nine. I had to ask my friends what happened.
They said over a hundred people came through the party, and my ex-boyfriend was one of them.
They said he walked into the kitchen just as I plopped down in my friend Eric’s lap to give him a sloppy New Year’s kiss on the cheek.
They said my ex started yelling, but I was too drunk to respond, too drunk to understand what I’d done and why he was so angry.
They said someone took me to my room and helped me into pajamas while my ex raged in the driveway outside.
They said he stormed back into the house and tried to break down my bedroom door, threatened to smash the windows of my mother’s truck, until someone talked him down and convinced him to leave. They said he sobbed on the back steps and said, “You don’t know what she’s really like. She’s completely fucked me up.”
They said they people took turns checking on me after that. They said every time someone stroked my back or brushed sweaty hair out of my face, I would briefly awaken. “I love you,” I told them, each one. “I love you, I’m sorry.”
The Tioga County fair didn’t smell like buttered popcorn and fried dough, but like scorched engine oil and manure. The soles of my chunky-heeled sandals filled with it, making my walk uneven down to the makeshift stadium where the demolition derby was about to start. Tom and his cousin were both competing with the junk cars they’d purchased for pennies, and spray painted with nicknames, heavy metal lyrics, things meant to resemble penises, and huge numbers so they could be identified in the arena.
Giulia and I looked like we’d just stepped out of a J. Crew ad. She wore a pair of crisp, white pants and a square-necked halter top, and I wore a black pencil skirt and striped tube top with a white cardigan. All around us were cargo shorts and hiking boots, lit cigarettes and giant plastic cups of Budweiser.
Giulia’s pants were already mottled with fair detritus, which put her in a bad mood. Every twenty minutes or so, she’d peel Aaron off from the group to ask if they could leave. “Let’s go to a movie,” she’d say. “Let’s go back to my house.” Her whispers were met with shouts. “No, Jesus! We’re going to do what I want to do tonight.”
Tom used these moments to nuzzle into my neck and run his lips from my earlobe to my shoulder. He called the blue wings his good luck charm, kissed them every night before one of us had to drive home. “Aa-rr-on,” he said, mocking Giulia, “I’m dirty and I want to go hooome.” His Altoid and Mountain Dew-laced breath made my skin quiver, and I grabbed his shirtsleeve to keep his lips there longer.
Everything had become a signifier for sex, and sex was the black hole at the center of our foursome. Tom and I were having it; Aaron and Giulia weren’t. Though Tom and I had only known each other a handful of months compared to the year Aaron and Giulia had together, sex allowed us an unmistakable intimacy. We grabbed and held. We pulled and tickled. Our touching showed no restraint. Our friends looked at us with a mixture of longing and mild disdain.
But there were questions between us, and some of them had introduced themselves at the fair. They had names like Nicole and Ari, Gretchen and Kate. If I wandered away with Giulia—if we used the bathrooms or bought water or played the rubber duck game—I’d come back to find a girl in short-shorts flirting with my boyfriend. Tom always did me the courtesy of gently discouraging them by introducing me as his girlfriend—“the boss,” he called me. I was polite to the girls. But I guessed at which ones he’d slept with, and with each introduction, a quiet darkness opened inside me.
We were having as adventuresome sex as I’d known. We had it anywhere we could. In Giulia’s basement, and in the shower at his trailer with his cousin banging on the door outside, and in practically every car we’d ever ridden in. I loved his hands best, the way I could feel his callousness against my skin, knowing they couldn’t feel me in return.
A few weeks before the fair, Guilia and I had gone for ice cream, and she said, “Aaron asked Tom an interesting question.” We were sitting outside the Custard Corner, licking chocolate soft serve from our wrists. Summer had turned our skin the same shade of brown, and made the pretty blond highlights streak Giulia’s ponytail. “He asked Tom who was the best in bed.”
It was a test, and I knew it. “I don’t want to know,” I said.
“Why? Are you scared it’s not you?”
“I assume it’s not me. You wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise.”
Giulia had already told me more than I wanted to know. She dropped all the sordid details she could get from Aaron. Tom losing his virginity at age twelve in his father’s hunting stand. Tom getting girls pregnant. Tom cheating on them, not out of meanness, but because he just couldn’t help himself. I never told him I knew, never asked him if any of it was true. The way girls looked at him, the way they touched him in front of me, unapologetic because they’d already possessed him, I believed everything.
“Why do you think it wouldn’t be you?” Giulia said. “I thought you said the sex was good.”
It went on all afternoon, Giulia bringing it back up every few minutes. We drove up to Highland Park and sat on the picnic tables, wove sticky grass into thick knots while kids screeched in the jungle gym. Finally, I started crying. “Can we please just drop it? Please?”
She could tell I’d had enough, and her face softened into a smile. “Oh, Ames,” she said, “you know I’m just teasing you. You know he said you were the best. Of course he said you were the best.”
But the tears wouldn’t stop. I just kept crying.
About twenty cars lined up in the arena for the derby. They idled loudly, spewing exhaust. Aaron led Giulia and me to seats up front, and quietly offered her his sweatshirt to shield her pants.
I wanted to be in one of those cars. In the few months we’d been dating, Tom had taken me off-roading, four-wheeling, go-carting, boating. My mother once remarked that it seemed all Tom and I did was laugh and drive. But I pushed things sometimes. Tom wouldn’t let me drive his four-wheeler by myself, and he wouldn’t let me take jumps over a few feet when I rode on the back. If he wanted to show off for his friends, I’d have to dismount, and when I shot him a disappointed look, he’d say, sharply, “Not this one, boss.”
He also hated my driving. There was the night I backed my mother’s truck into the ditch in front of his trailer, and the morning I swerved into a telephone pole, trying to miss a cat that darted into the road. That day, after he towed my mother’s totaled truck up to his father’s shop, he placed a brick in the middle of the driveway and told me to get in his Beretta. “Drive over it,” he said. I circled and circled the lot, tires hitting that brick, twenty times, thirty times. I drove over it until I swore I’d hit the next animal instead of swerve. “You’re not going to fucking die for a cat, do you hear me?” he said.
The derby happened in a blur. The collage of junk cars rammed and smoked, sputtered and groaned. Competitors were quickly eliminated. Tom’s car stalled out when it got pinned to the wall, and I could tell from his slumped exit that he was disappointed. His cousin’s car made it to the final three. But then he got rear-ended hard, and something under the hood began smoking. Soon, we could see flames. The safety crew flooded the arena in their yellow fireproof suits, dragging limp, white hoses after them. They hauled the protesting cousin out of the car. “Boys, come on,” he said. “It’s just a small fire!”
I watched, spellbound. To purposely destroy a car seemed like the greatest thing on Earth. We had fallen into the routine of going four-wheeling with his friends most evenings. I never wore a helmet on these trips, never asked Tom to slow down. His friends accepted me easily for this, but I went along because I wanted to, because I found something of my own in what we were doing. It wasn’t just how the four-wheeler showed me new ways to love the lush hills and still green ponds of my home. As the summer wore on, the more I became aware that my dare-deviling was different. For Tom and his friends—boys who grew up in trailers, boys whose fathers had taught them to fix cars and paint houses in preparation for their futures—riding gave them a mastery of the only world they assumed they would ever know. For me, riding was another way to relinquish the world I couldn’t hang onto.
And yet, there were times I forgot myself and felt such complete happiness I almost couldn’t breathe.
Tom and some of the derby competitors met us outside the arena, dry, dusty straw breaking under our shifting feet. My cardigan was crusted with mud, so I took it off and wadded it into my purse. In only my tube top, the boys could now see my tattoo, and they gathered to inspect it. “Damn, Tom,” they teased. “A tattoo. She’s badass.”
“Don’t I know it,” he said.
We started towards the parking lot, all of us spent and in need of showers. The sun was down, but the lights from the fair blotted out the stars, left only a blank navy sky above us. Aaron and Tom walked ahead, talking animatedly about the derby. Giulia and I walked behind picking mud and straw from each other’s hair.
Suddenly, she stopped and gave me a weird smile. “Sometimes it’s crazy how I’m the only one who knows who you really are,” she said.
I looked at her, trying to read the glint in her eyes. “What does that mean?” I said.
She took a step closer and poked her finger into my shoulder. I could feel her manicured nail leave a little crescent in the skin. “You know what it means,” she said. “It means everyone else falls for your bullshit.”
At SUNY New Paltz, I was housed with three girls in a dorm room meant for two. One of them had a boyfriend back home whose jealous streak took up most of the landline use (none of us had cell phones yet). Everyday they argued for hours about where the roommate was when she didn’t answer the phone. Tom said the line was always busy, so we started arranging our conversations around the communal phone in the dorm lobby, a humiliatingly public place for me to talk to him, since I often cried. The cost of long-distance calls drastically limited how long his father would let us talk. Tom had another year of high school left. To our parents, it looked like we were fooling ourselves at their expense.
In September, Giulia convinced me to visit her at Lafayette. Despite the sizable difference in luxury between our colleges, she wasn’t adjusting well, either. Making friends had never come easily to her, and her long-distance relationship with Aaron had started to turn sour. Unlike me, Giulia dutifully attended her classes and dorm meetings, and, like my roommate’s boyfriend, Aaron became suspicious every time she didn’t answer the phone.
I formulated a plan on the bus trip to Lafayette. I would finish this semester at New Paltz, however disastrous it would surely end up academically, and then transfer to the community college back home. I would get a job and an apartment. After a year or two, with my grades scholarship-worthy, I would transfer to Ithaca College on a manageable financial aid package. Watching the fiery hillsides blur past my smudged window, a sense of peace flooded me for the first time in months. I would fix all this, and Tom and I would be happy.
I knew Giulia wouldn’t approve of my community college plan, so I decided not to mention it during our visit. When I arrived, she and Aaron were on the phone. “Class,” she said, pacing around the room. “You know, that place where you go to learn something?”
Their fighting forced her into the hallway for as much privacy as communal living would allow. I took the opportunity to check out her new digs. She had chosen the all-women dorm, its hallways scented with the hair products and perfume of a hundred girls to whom co-ed living did not appeal. Giulia and her roommate had walk-in closets with full-length mirrors, matching vanities, and eggshell white walls instead of New Paltz’s institutional green. I imagined this was what Ithaca College’s dorms looked like. I imagined this as my eventual future, if I could only be patient enough to make it happen.
Giulia returned shaken, her face shiny with tears. “They’re assholes,” she said, flopping facedown on her extra-long twin bed.
“They’re going out tonight. They’re going clubbing in Binghamton.” Then she said the names of two girls they planned to take with them. I recognized the names from the fair.
“So ‘they’ means Tom, too?” I said.
“Whose idea do you think this was?”
Tom had already left when his brother answered the phone. “He’s staying at Aaron’s tonight,” he muttered, TV loud in the background. “Those fucking queers.”
I hung up with a familiar sick feeling. I’d been right that Tom couldn’t stay faithful, that he’d cave to temptation eventually. It was as unstoppable as the next rain. But more than that, I knew whatever he did with another girl, tonight or any other night, would be partly my fault. Like Jay Gatsby, rewriting himself in the belief he could deceive Daisy into loving him, I’d recast myself as a person Tom could love, the lies and the truths so thoroughly mixed I couldn’t tell one from another anymore, his or mine, or what dishonest thing we created together. Giulia was right—I was an imposter. It didn’t matter what Tom did that night. Our trust had been broken from the beginning.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go to David’s room.”
David was a friend from home, and like Giulia, he was a freshman at Lafayette. It wasn’t him I wanted, but the liquor I predicted he had in his room and the party he could take us to later. His roommate answered the door, looking pleased to see two strange girls. “Well, hi,” he said. He studied each of us in turn, lingering on me. “Dave’s at class, but you’re welcome to come in. I’m Chris.”
Chris was a friendly overeager sort, bouncing around the room to show us anything he thought would entertain us—pictures of his family, crew awards, rock climbing gear, DVD collection. His thick, black hair was cut shaggily around his boyish face, and he wore the type of squared-framed glasses that would, in a few years, become the preferred frames of vapid hipsters. He was too charming for Giulia to dislike him outright, so I told him we were looking for a party. He gestured to the shelf of half-filled bottles I saw the minute we walked in the door.
“I can definitely find you a party,” he said. “But you should pre-game here first.” We made a plan to come by later.
Giulia and I passed a quiet afternoon in her room. We watched movies and ordered a pizza, pretending not to notice the tension between us, or how we jumped whenever the phone rang. After we ate, Giulia produced a bottle of vodka and a carton of orange juice from her mini-fridge. The screwdrivers helped. We poked around in her closet for something I could borrow, a ritual we both loved because her clothes were designer brands in expensive fabrics—silk and cashmere and linen—and because she enjoyed dressing me up in her things.
“I’ve missed your closet,” I said, wrapping myself in one of her sweaters. We both knew what I meant.
Chris made us vodka-cranberries in oversized plastic keg cups, and handed Giulia the TV remote. Then he turned off the lights and sat beside me on the small, lumpy futon, leaving Giulia the camping chair in the corner. Within minutes, he was on me. He fumbled with my body the way college boys do, feigning experience. First, his hand was up the back of my tank top, and then it moved to the front, over my bra. He didn’t know where to get a grip on me. I’d surprised him by being entirely willing.
I felt the strap of my tank top slide down my shoulder, his lips on the back of the neck. “I didn’t know you had a tattoo,” he murmured. His mouth moved to my shoulder, and he began fiddling with the button of my jeans. I could feel Giulia watching. When Chris’ fingers pulled my underwear aside and pushed his fingers inside me, when I was sure Giulia would tell Aaron everything, I stood up and left.
Giulia followed me down the hall and out the door into the fragrant, early fall night. The wrought-iron lamps lining the cobbled paths stung my eyes. We walked, with her trailing me a few steps, until I found a bench and I collapsed against it. Guttural sounds pushed their way up and out of my throat, the sobbing as hard as being punched. Giulia said nothing. She knew why I had done it and what she would do about it. The whole thing had taken less than half an hour, but we both understood that I was going to lose Tom. I would lose them all.
One year later, on a mattress on the floor of my first apartment, I woke to an 8:45 alarm. The next minute, a plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The radio deejay said it was a terrible accident.
I paid for the apartment by waitressing at a bar. I had no working phone and no real furniture. A cardboard box acted as a coffee table, and I kept my clothes in neat piles on milk crates I used as shelves. I worked at night, and during the day I took classes at the community college, where I occasionally spotted Tom holding hands with his new girlfriend, an art student with blond hair. Sometimes he made shy eye contact and flashed a small smile in my direction. Other times, the aversion of his gaze was so deliberate I’d check my reflection just to be sure I hadn’t turned invisible.
I turned my loosely-rigged TV on in time to see the South Tower hit by the second plane live on national television. Then I watched both towers fall in a folding crush of metal and glass. My mouth wouldn’t close and my eyes wouldn’t blink. Tears just ran down silently, blurring the screen. I thought of the news stories I watched as a kid on the first twenty-four channels, spellbound as I was at the demolition derby. Rodney King and the L.A. riots. River Phoenix dead outside the Viper Room. Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The O.J. Simpson trial all the way to my eighth grade home ec class hearing the verdict read live on CNN. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The yearlong countdown to either the next millennium or the apocalypse.
But two hours later, I had to go to my honors English lit class. It never occurred to me not to go, so dedicated had I become to getting straight A’s. So sure that the rest of us left alive would see another day, and another, and another.
I showered and dressed. Then I backed my silver Chevy Metro out of the shared carport, and turned down the street towards the on-ramp. The sun shone bright as fire on the highway. It was a Tuesday.
Tattoos invite assumptions. They open a little window on the person who wears them. Sometimes they peek out from under clothing, suggesting a secret. Sometimes they sprawl a whole appendage, loud as a protest. They’re more conducive to self-disclosure than scars, though they’re scars, too. Recently, I learned my mother’s bluebird is, in fact, a seagull. She chose it in homage to Richard Bach’s 1970 novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, whose protagonist, a young seagull named Jonathan, becomes enamored with flight as the antidote to the materialism and conformity of his flock. When she had it done, whiskey drunk at a bluegrass festival, my mother was on the heels of her first divorce and the cusp of her lifelong feminism. Years later, when I was a teenager and asked for the hundredth time why she left my father, she said plainly, “Because I could, dammit,” and I heard in her voice the defensiveness she has carried all her life, born in the advent of free love and the pill and no-fault laws. For those who choose ink to honor, commemorate, or even simply decorate, the pleasure and pain of tattooing are symbiotic. We do not experience them separately, but as a stormy and little understood mixture. It may be why some people become “addicted” to tattoos, as the joy and the sorrow of life find such an apt metaphor in the act of getting inked.
After Tom, my own tattoo became part of a compatibility test. As soon as I stood naked before a man, I could count on his questioning both a prominent scar on my right breast and the strange, floating blue wings on my shoulder. Maybe not the first time we slept together. Maybe the second or third or fourth time. But eventually they would ask, and with each man, I would make an intuitive decision about what to say, how much to reveal. At first I made up stories, but with time, I grew braver. By the time I transferred to Ithaca College in 2003, bolstered by a ton of hard-earned scholarships and grants, I hardly ever waited for sex anymore, nor reserved honesty only for lovers. To anyone who would listen, I would name all the terrible things I’d ever done or experienced, every abuse I’d suffered or caused. With each new friend I made in college, I gave them this litmus test—the tattoo test—to see if they could still like me knowing up front I was capable of deeply hurting people. Much to my surprise, most people could still like me. Some could even love me.
When I met my husband in graduate school, I nearly scared him off trying to convince him not to love me. For months, while we forged a cautious friendship, he tried to see behind my baffling motivations for smear-campaigning myself while at the same time openly drooling over him in our writing workshops. “I think you might be wrong about what an awful person you are,” he once said in his southern drawl, grinning at me across the table of a dark bar. “I mean, here you are telling me about every shit you’ve ever taken. What’s not to trust?”
Summer comes on fast in upstate New York–spring might be a day or a week. Wake up one morning in May and it’s here. The smell of lush grass and dewy honeysuckle.
In high school, I used to wear that cheap Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers perfume. I wore it because every girl wore it, but Tom loved it. He thought it smelled like the honeysuckle he pruned into manageability on his landscaping jobs. Every year, beginning in late May, I start counting the days until I get a text message: The honeysuckle’s back. Thinking of you.
I always wish him a happy birthday in early June. On beautiful summer days—the humidity low, the breeze carrying the slight fishy scent of Cayuga Lake into downtown Ithaca—I might ask if he’s been out on the four-wheeler or scooter, and wish him safe riding. He’s into mopeds now. And Father’s Day. I wish him a happy Father’s Day now, too.
We’ve discussed many times our relationship and what happened between us as teenagers, our friends and their manipulation, but we don’t talk about that anymore. For years, we even slept together every now and again, whenever we were single, whenever we had cause to reclaim the best of our youth. These were happy occasions. We forgave each other a long time ago. I’ve gotten two tattoos since then, an iris and a daffodil on each foot, respectively, so the story of my wings has lost some of its power, become part of the landscape of my body.
A few weeks ago, I had to fly to Cleveland for work, and a swath of nasty east coast storms canceled my return flight. As I waited at my gate for news, my phone lit up with Tom’s annual text. I wrote back that I was stranded in Ohio. He told me to call him if I wanted some long-distance company. I did.
“I know you!” I said when he answered.
“I know you!”
We only live twenty minutes apart now, but this was the first time I’d heard his voice in over five years. The ease with which we talked—a nearly two-hour conversation consisting largely of laughter—was born not only of our special closeness, though we do have some of that, but of our mutual extroversion and the energy we derive from other people. In that, we have always been more similar than different.
The conversation was also punctuated by the normalcies of our lives—the mischievous dog he kept scolding, the clank of dishes being washed, the announcements crackling over the P.A. system at the airport. “The Weather Channel says the storms are dying down,” he told me. “You should be able to get home tomorrow morning, tops.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I figured as much.”
It was getting late, nearly midnight. I had to call my husband and find a hotel for the night. I told Tom to call me again sometime, and maybe one day I could meet his wife and son, and he could meet my husband, seeing as we all live in neighboring counties. We could go riding or to the lake. “I wish that,” he said. “I wish I could tell my wife I just had a great conversation with Amy tonight. But I’d be divorced if I did.” He chuckled.
“I understand,” I said. “But I’m going to tell my husband, if it’s all the same to you. It’s funny, but he gets it, you know?”
“What part does he get?” Tom said.
And I explained it this way: My husband understands that sometimes even what we try to destroy, like ink in the skin, it can endure.